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Danica Patrick's Last Race

May 26, 2018
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Danica Patrick is one of the biggest names in motor sports, one of the most successful women in the history of American racing, and tomorrow, her last race is one of the world's most famous - the Indy 500. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Just a few days ago, Danica Patrick lined up in her bright green Chevy for the qualifying race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And we welcome back Danica Patrick.

CORLEY: Patrick's four-lap average of about 228 mph earned her a top spot in tomorrow's Indy 500. It's the second half of what's being called the Danica double. The first half was her final race at NASCAR's Daytona 500 in February. She ended up in a multi-car crash and didn't finish. With tomorrow's race in Indianapolis, she comes full circle. Thirteen years ago, Patrick was named IndyCar's rookie of the year. She had a record-breaking season and led for 19 laps in the Indy 500. Later, she made the jump to stock car racing at NASCAR. In an interview with NPR at the time, she's said her drive to win began at home.

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DANICA PATRICK: I started racing when I was 10 years old. And it was really just something to be together as a family, something to get to know my father primarily.

CORLEY: By age 16, Patrick had earned three national go-kart titles. One of her mentors was trailblazing race car driver Lyn St. James who had won Indy's rookie of the year title herself in 1992. Patrick attended St. James' drivers development program.

LYN ST. JAMES: I mean, I say I'm looking for the cream. And I got a lot of milk. And Danica was definitely cream. I saw the talent and the potential and the commitment. And I'm glad that I was able to help her.

CORLEY: The IndyCar series includes a number of races here and abroad. The most famous is the Indianapolis 500. And Patrick is the only woman who's lead laps in an Indy 500 race and in NASCAR's Daytona 500. She made history in 2008 when she won an IndyCar event in Japan.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Into turns three and four - Danica Patrick coming out of four - and boys, move over. The lady is coming through. Danica Patrick wins a Twin Ring Motegi.

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PATRICK: It's a first. And firsts are in history books, so I've always hoped and wanted to be that person.

CORLEY: Four years later, Patrick made her stock car racing debut at NASCAR. Patrick never ended up in the top five at Daytona. But with a knack for self-promotion, she and longtime sponsor, web domain company GoDaddy, helped build each other's brand. And she became rich in doing so. IndyCar marketing director C.J. O'Donnell says having Danica Patrick racing helps everyone.

C.J. O'DONNELL: She actually, you know, was able to best leverage her personality, her skills on the race track and her sponsored partnerships to put women in the foreground of racing and then draw a new audience our events and the Indy 500 specifically.

CORLEY: Early on in her racing career, Patrick set a goal of winning the Indy 500. Now, at tomorrow's race, she says she just wants to be competitive. As far as her legacy is concerned, here's what she told ESPN recently.

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PATRICK: When I'm done racing, I hope people remember me as a great driver. And I think it starts there.

CORLEY: Now at 36 years old, the woman who broke some racing barriers will end her racing career on the track in Indianapolis, a track that brought her popularity and fame and the opportunity tomorrow to once again make history. Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.